SEOUL — They’re the dwindling survivors of a war crime who have fought 17 years for justice. Now amid a gathering revisionist movement in Japan, they live out their final days in the South Korean countryside with the worst fear of all: that the world will forget what happened to them.
In South Korea, they call them “halmoni,” or grandmothers, although many are so scarred mentally and physically that they have never married or had children. In Japan, they are known as “comfort women,” a hated euphemism for their forced role of providing “comfort” to marauding troops in military brothels. But around the world, another, altogether starker term will follow them to their graves: sex slaves.
Kang Il Chul is one of a handful of the surviving women living out their final days in Sharing House, a museum and communal refuge two hours from Seoul. It is a stark, concrete building off a country road set in a sparsely populated area of rice fields and scraggly mountain forests. But she has found some peace here in Gyeonggi Province. “I am among my friends, who treat me well.”
Aged 15, and the youngest in a family of 12, Kang says she was snatched near here in 1943 and sent north on a train to a Japanese army base in Manchuria. On her second night, and before she had even menstruated, she was raped.
Soldiers lined up night after night to abuse her. She has scars just below her neck from cigarette burns and says she suffers headaches from a beating she took at the hands of an officer.
“I still have blood tears in my soul when I think about what happened,” she says, reaching for a Korean phrase that will express her memories. Like many of the women, she finds it traumatic to recall the past, crying and knotting a handkerchief, and swaying from side to side as she talks.
But she turns angry and slaps the table in front of her when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is mentioned. “That horrible man,” she spits. “He wants us to die.”
Last year, Abe stunned the residents of Sharing House by claiming there is “no evidence” to prove the women were coerced “in the strict sense of the term,” reversing an official position stated in 1993.
Amid a growing political storm and pressure from Japan’s U.S. allies in Washington, Abe subsequently backtracked in a series of carefully worded statements that took the heat out of the controversy.
But the denial “terrified” Kang. “I felt that my heart had been turned inside out.”
“The women’s greatest fear is that when they die, the crimes against them will be forgotten,” says Ahn Sin Kweon, director of Sharing House. “After they pass away it will be difficult to keep their memory alive because they won’t be here to describe it themselves.”
Thousands of women across Asia like Kang — some as young as 12 — were “enslaved and repeatedly raped, tortured and brutalized for months and years” by the Japanese military, according to Amnesty International.
Sexual abuse, beatings and sometimes forced abortions left many unable to bear children. Some were raped 30 times a day. Most survivors stayed silent until a small group of Korean victims began to speak out in the early 1990s.
Among the first was Kim Hak Soon, who was raped and treated, in her words, “like a public toilet” by the soldiers. “We must record these things that were forced upon us,” Kim said before she died.
The call was eventually taken up by about 50 women, recalls Ahn. “Many weren’t married or were living alone in small towns, barely able to scrape a living.”
A Buddhist organization helped construct Sharing House on donated land in the 1990s and some survivors began coming, first out of curiosity, then for companionship.
“They were initially reluctant to stay because the more they were out in the spotlight, the more people knew that they were raped.” Ahn says. “It is very difficult for women of that generation to discuss sexual matters openly, let alone these experiences.”
Japan officially acknowledged wartime military slavery in a landmark 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, an admission followed by the offer of redress from a small private fund, which expired last year.
But the so-called Kono statement has long baited Japanese revisionists, who deny that the military was directly involved. “The women were legal prostitutes in brothels, earning money for their families,” said revisionist academic Nobukatsu Fujioka. “Mr. Kono’s statement was a mistake and should be reversed.”
A new book by Tokyo Christian University professor Tsutomu Nishioka, “Behind the Comfort Women Controversy: How Lies Became Truth,” claims the women’s support campaign is driven by “political propaganda” and “not one of its accusations is true.”
Although Abe is out, replaced by the less ideological Yasuo Fukuda, Kang and fellow victims fear it is only a matter of time before the denials return to haunt them, perhaps with the next prime minister.
The struggle defines the final years of their lives: If they win, they have salvaged some of the dignity snatched from them as teenagers; if they lose, they will in effect be branded prostitutes. Says Kang: “We must fight or we will be forgotten.”
When health allows, Kang, 82, drags herself from the quiet seclusion of the Gyeonggi countryside to a weekly demonstration outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
The former sex slaves have been going there since the early 1990s and marked their 800th consecutive rally in February. Their demands, including punishing the former soldiers who raped them, an apology from the Emperor and the building of a memorial in Japan are angrily hurled against the walls of the embassy, but are unlikely to ever be met.
The Wednesday protest, as it is known, has become ritualized, tinged with sadness as the already small group of survivors is decimated by illness and mortality. Of 15 former Sharing House residents, just seven remain, most in poor health.
But the women are heartened by small victories. Last year, the U.S. Congress passed Resolution 121, calling on Tokyo to “formally apologize and accept historical responsibility” for the sex-slave issue.
Kang was one of the women who traveled to Washington in 2005 to testify. The resolution, sponsored by Japanese-American politician Mike Honda was fought hard by Tokyo, which sent lobbyists and Diet lawmakers to squash it.
An editorial in Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, said there was not “one shred of evidence to substantiate” the claim that the Japanese government had systemically coerced and recruited the women. Many believe that but for Abe’s bungled denial, the resolution would not have passed.
Today, a large banner showing a beaming Honda is draped across the main courtyard of the commune. A copy of Resolution 121, signed by Honda and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, hangs in manager Ahn’s office.
“The resolution was very important for us because our priority is to keep the memory of the women alive; to keep a record of their lives,” he says, recalling Honda’s reception when he visited last November.
“He was treated like a hero. Honda called the women ‘sisters’ and said it was a measure of their value that they’d come through all this suffering and emerged out the other side. He described Sharing House as a living museum.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, Ahn reserves much of his anger for his own government. “(South) Korea should more actively support us. We are upset that it doesn’t stand up against the Japanese government.”
Like many, he believes Seoul bartered away any compensation claims when it signed a friendship treaty with Japan in 1965 in return for millions of dollars in soft loans and grants. “It is up to Japanese people to criticize their own government.”
Every year, he says, about 5,000 Japanese make the pilgrimage to his office. Their encounter with the victims is sometimes wrenching and tearful. Some stay as volunteers to help at the center.
But Kang is deeply suspicious of visiting Japanese journalists. “They want to show us weak and dying,” she cries, again slapping the table in anger. “Especially the camera crews. They follow the oldest, sickest women around and film them, hoping to show everyone back home that we will all be gone soon.”
Kang recalls the day she was taken. “The soldiers had a list with my name on it. They put me in a truck. My nephew came out to look at them. He was just a baby. The soldiers kicked him and he died.”
Memories like that make her strong, she says. “Future generations will call us prostitutes. Either (the Japanese government) saves face, or we save ours.”